Were a playwright to choose an African-American character to push Abraham Lincoln toward signing the Emancipation Proclamation, the names of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner or Sojourner Truth might come to mind. It’s fiction, so it doesn’t matter whether the meeting really took place. We’re just looking for a plausible subject.
But would you think of Uncle Tom, whose name has become a synonym for servility?
Seems a stretch, but that’s exactly the man Carlyle Brown chose to carry the mantle of freedom in his new play. “Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House” has its world premiere Saturday in the Guthrie Studio, with actors James A. Williams and Steve Hendrickson. Brown is attempting to turn convention on its head and to reclaim Uncle Tom’s identity in a dialogue that explores the economic dimension of slavery, the notion of self-sacrifice and the intense pressures of leadership.
“I hadn’t read the book, and I had fallen victim to the mentality that says when you hear the name Uncle Tom you get the picture of the worst individual you could imagine,” said Williams, who plays the man. “In reading the book, I found a character of honor and dignity and I thought, maybe this character deserves to be looked at again.”
The book, of course, is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” serialized in a magazine and then published in 1852. The story divided the nation on the question of slavery and set the path for the Civil War. Legend has it that when Beecher Stowe visited the White House herself, Lincoln remarked, “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Beecher Stowe was inspired to write her abolitionist tract in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which in 1850 imposed penalties on law officers in non-slave states to return escapees to the South. Uncle Tom is a slave who refuses to give up information about runaways, and ultimately is martyred. He is kind, perhaps to a fault, because Beecher Stowe wanted to create — in her eyes — a completely sympathetic and human image.
“Mrs. Beecher Stowe was creating what she thought was the perfect spokesman for abolitionists,” Williams said. “It’s almost a superhuman portrayal of kindness and goodness.”
Christlike is the term that many have ascribed to Tom — including both Williams and Brown. It is an identity that has provoked incendiary reactions through the years, fed by polemics that Tom was self-abasing and eager to please the slaveholder. Brown said he has retained the honor and goodness of Uncle Tom, but that he hopes to “reclaim Tom’s identity from Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
How to say something new
Brown had been asked to write something about Lincoln and the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013. Easy, right — because nothing has been written about Lincoln or the document he published in 1863 that freed slaves in the rebel states. That’s sarcasm, just fyi.
The decree had military and economic implications. Lincoln initially opposed using blacks in the Union Army, but by 1863, he understood their value to the war effort. Secondly, the proclamation freed slaves who had fueled the South’s prosperity. In fact, that’s why Southern senators wanted the Fugitive Slave Act so badly 13 years earlier. Runaway slaves were draining capital from the economy. Slaves had value. They were the oil of the Southern engine, is how Williams put it.
“Slavery had been an economic assumption from the beginning,” Brown said of the ideas he is discussing in the play. “It’s a reasonable thesis that America began as a slave nation because economically it needed slavery to provide a labor force to develop this vast expanse of land.”
Brown decided he would write a play that took place before Lincoln issued the Proclamation. Uncle Tom stops by the White House for a visit and to plead with the president on terms of morality and decency.
“One of the things we talk about in rehearsal is that there are the wrong reasons and the right reasons to sign the bill, and then there is the human reason,” Williams said.
Uncle Tom argues that amid all the chaos and upheaval the proclamation will cause, there is a quality of doing the right thing.